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The Value-Action Gap - Avoiding Hypocrisy

I’m a hypocrite. I care about the environment and want to do my part to keep the planet clean and healthy. I recycle a lot and turn off lights when I leave a room.

Then I get in my SUV and drive 5 miles to the store, spewing carbon into the atmosphere along the way. Not a very planet-friendly thing to do.

So that means I am a hypocrite and to some degree, so are you. We all are. We experience what is known as the value-action gap (or attitude-behavior gap), and it happens when our values would have us behave one way but our actions don’t support that value.

The value-action gap is is fairly easy to recognize in others but difficult to see when we do it ourselves.

Because everyone would prefer that their actions align with their values (making them less of a hypocrite) it is worth the effort to explore how we can reduce the gap and be better aligned. That requires figuring out why we do it in the first place.

Why we do what we do

Among the many contributing factors to the value-action gap is that the “right” action is:

- not practical

- too expensive

- too difficult to do (or not do) something

- too time consuming

There is often a trade-off between your personal resources (time, energy, money, etc.) and your values. For example, you weigh - usually subconsciously - whether your time or value-alignment is more important at that moment. Often your time wins that battle.

Other reasons our actions may be mis-aligned with our values:

- you have a habit of taking the offending action. Habits are hard to break

- we may not feel as strongly about the value as we think we do.

- you may not even have the values you say you do. Sometimes we only say we value something because it is socially acceptable, but our fervor for that belief is lukewarm at best. When a social norm doesn’t align with our values, we often behave in a way that we feel is outwardly acceptable, whether we think it is the right thing to do.

Often the gap is due to the difference between the two yous - the planner and the do’er. The planner knows your values and creates the intention of acting on them, but the do’er has to perform the actual work and faces the obstacles in your path. You may know the right course of action, but it is easier said than done.

Forging a Better Connection

There are several keys to improve the connection between your values and actions.

First, identify and write down your values and priorities. Do you even know what they are? Take some time to inventory your values. Consider the personal traits you strive to espouse, such as honesty, empathy, integrity, etc. For many, environmental stewardship is important (and is often the focus of articles and studies on the value-action gap.) Writing them down is key - don’t just think about them.

Then rank them by importance. This helps to keep the most important ones top of mind.

Next, make it easier and more convenient to live your values. There is a correlation between how expensive and difficult doing (or not doing) something would be and our likelihood of doing it. The harder it is to do, the more lenience we give ourselves to stray from our values. So set up your "do’er" (the future you who implements your plans) for success by creating an environment that makes it easier to succeed when your values are put to the test.

As I mentioned, practicality can be an issue. Like me, you may believe that your use of fossil fuels is not good for the planet but you still drive your gas-powered car because the alternatives are not practical or too costly in terms of your personal resources. That is not an indictment, it's just the nature of our civilization and how we live in the 21st century.

Don’t beat yourself up after having gone astray from your values. Recognize that it happened and set yourself up to reduce or avoid that value-action gap in the future. Being true to our values makes us all better people and less hypocritical.

Think well and be well.

- Steve Haffner

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